Common Wisdom: Cathy’s Christmas House

I met my friend Cathy on the first day of our freshman year at DePauw. Had I known how intricately Providence would care for the smallest detail even of this one friendship, I would have spared myself a lot of empty worry about the future. I could have learned to trust years sooner. That is not, however, the way the mysterious Lord works. He reveals himself only in time.

The time he would give me to know Cathy would be the span of our adult lives, but on that September afternoon I was far from philosophizing about friendship. I was an uncertain freshman in search of a friendly face—and I found one in Cathy. From her paternal forebears, chief of whom had been Jean Baptiste La-Plante, French scout for Revolutionary War General George Rogers Clark, Cathy had inherited dark coloring that pointed up her open, happy countenance. An eighteen-year-old giggle punctuated her gracious, gentle manner. On any given day, I learned that freshman year, she presented the same good cheer, the same comforting easiness. Her customary classroom attire, too, was reassuring in its deliberate effort to be early ’60s standard—yellow shetland cardigan, round-collared white cotton blouse with circle pin, gray flannel straight skirt, and the DePauw variation on this collegiate uniform, white crew socks and tennis shoes.

Never aiming to put herself forward, Cathy became known to her sorority sisters as a friend who “wears well.” Other girls appreciated her innate kindness, her thoughtfulness and tact. They elected her to the office that required the most diplomacy and judgment, the ticklish job of assigning roommates. My own friendship with Cathy had by our senior year quietly grown into something solid. Though we were not best friends, we were good friends.

With graduation came the scattering of our class into marriage and settling down in the quaint little Ohio River town of Newburgh, Indiana, ten miles upriver from Evansville. Of all people in my class Cathy was the one whom I least expected to appear in my life in Newburgh. Yet Cathy surprisingly was the very friend who, only two years after graduation, came to live in Newburgh. From then on our lives unfolded within just a few blocks of each other. Cathy’s life, however, has required of her some heartbreaking sacrifices that mine has not asked of me—for instance, the death in Vietnam combat of her first husband and later the death of her teenage son. But my reflections here do not concern the sadness of her life, but the providential care of God. The greatest example of Providence yet to link Cathy and me surely was the house.

Not long after Cathy came to Newburgh my husband and I finally bought a house that we loved and could afford. It was a simple, two-story frame house, symmetrical and well-arranged. Set amidst big old trees and bordered in back by a creek and a high ravine covered in the spring with bluebells and trout lilies, the house captured our romantic sentiments and our loyalty. We welcomed the migratory warblers and grosbeaks that visited our trees for a day or so each February. We loved our big beech tree with somebody’s old initials scratched in the trunk. We cherished the maples and tulip poplars that lined Darby Hills lane and wound around the hill past our neighbor Adah’s house. We relished being just four blocks from the Ohio River. The throaty whistle of towboats and the deeper whistle of the Delta Queen and the gala voice of its steam calliope entwined with our lives. Our children, who were all born in the Newburgh Darby Hills house, learned the river from our evening strolls along Water Street.

We had lots of company in our house. Cathy and her husband were among those who sometimes came for supper, or Cathy would drop in on the way to or from errands. She was godmother for our youngest daughter.

At Christmastime we went all out with greenery and red velvet ribbons. Our tree stood in front of the big living room window, always decked out in miniature lights. The creche nestled in greenery on the mantel.

When I think back on our romantic illusions about that house which, after all, was a simple house, I have to smile. Yet our earnest concentration on the house had its roots in something genuine and necessary, especially in the life of a young couple.

What we are given in life are our genetic inheritance, our family, our faith and tradition, and our freedom. Although our parents may give us some material possessions, we have a feeling of having borrowed those possessions or of owning them second-hand. Not until we grow up and acquire something through our own labor do we have a sense of real ownership.

Our freedom, particularly when we are young, extends before us in an almost frightening open-ended expanse. The landscape of our life is free and exciting; it is also terrifyingly blank. The human instinct, therefore, is to impose order on that blank landscape. Because we are beings so thoroughly grounded in the particular and concrete, our immediate urge is to build a structure, a form we can also see and touch. And a structure is also an enclosure of space—a fence, a wall, a picture frame, a window, a house. Our human drive is ever to bring intimacy out of immensity. Thus our favorite place to sit of an evening is rarely a vast open lounge but instead a cozy den. Nobody loves a great receiving room; on the other hand everyone loves a little sitting room lined with books, with chairs drawn up to a fire.

Of all the material goods one may acquire by far the single most important possession is a house. No other possession so well serves to make an imprint upon the landscape of a life. No other possession provides such form and shape and delineation. No other possession has such an ordering effect. No other possession so well disciplines and contains our freedom within proper boundaries. Without being told, a young couple knows that a house provides a major definition of their lives. Thus to want to own a house; to rivet attention on it once it is acquired; to paint, paper, re-do, tear out, put in, plan, dream—and, finally, to compromise one’s romantics dreams with what is really possible, to see the house as it really is and then to determine what actually can be done with it—is exactly what a young couple should experience.

There came a time, much to my thorough surprise, when we had to move away from the Newburgh house. It was a shock to me; I had been naive enough to assume we were there forever. Without any pretense of keeping a stiff upper lip, I cried buckets and did not try to hide the tears. Leaving the house that bore our own imprint, the house in which we had discovered the order of our young family, seemed nearly as great a grief as if a loved one had died.

Now, nearly twelve years later, I have come to love Cincinnati and have become attached to another house—and yet not with quite the utter devotion I had for little Newburgh and our house in Darby Hills. In the interim of a dozen years I have discovered that the fulfillment of a dream of a house does not exist altogether in this life, and it is not supposed to.

A few months ago God must have decided on some divine sleight of hand. The phone rang one Saturday morning. Cathy’s voice on the other end said, “You know your old house in Darby Hills is for sale.” Yes, I had heard that news.

“When was it built?” she asked. Built in 1947. “What plans did you have for adding on to the house?” she wondered.

“A big family room, another bedroom upstairs, and so forth,” I said. “Why? Do you know someone who is interested?”

“Oh, you never know. We might be,” she responded casually. “I’m going to look at it.”

Scarcely had we hung up than I sped downstairs to relay to the family this fascinating tidbit. We laughed  and remarked how wonderful if the McCrays should buy our old house. But, we said, that was a pipe dream.

Next day another phone call. Cathy liked the house and recalled how she remembered it from the days when we lived there. And the following day another call; they had looked at the place again. Another day or two: “Well, we bought it!” There were big plans for a great remodeling—shoving out walls, adding rooms.

“But I have a question,” Cathy said. “Where did you put the tree?”

“The tree?” I asked.

“Why the Christmas tree. The first thing I have to decide about a house is where to put the Christmas tree. Did you put it in front of the big window?”

“Yes,” I said. “In front of the big window.”

When we received the news of the sale, our household went up in rejoicing. Strangely, though it was early June, my mind raced forward to Advent. All I could think of was that mysterious, marvelous Advent figure, John the Baptist, for whom Cathy Vincennes’ ancestor, Jean Baptiste LaPlante, was named. Every Advent I had puzzled over John the Baptist, coming out of the wilderness to exhort us to prepare the way of the Lord. I had been distracted earlier by the image of him with wild hair, wearing a garment of camel skins and eating only locusts and honey. Now, however, it occurred to me really for the first time that he is our model of humility. Given the authority to baptize with water for repentance, he nonetheless refused to claim to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. His authority came only from the One whose sandal strap he was not fit to undo. His mission was simply to prepare for and announce the coming of the Lord. He was only the bridegroom’s friend, he said, glad to hear the bridegroom’s voice. The bridegroom “must grow greater,” he said “and “I must grow smaller.”

How much the Baptist has to teach us about our mission to let Christ grow greater as we grow smaller. We have only to stand aside and make way for the Lord. How useless, I think now, were all those tears when I left the Newburgh house. Had I known I was leaving to pave the way for my friend, I would never have cried at all.

Yes, Cathy, put the Christmas tree in front of the big window.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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